How do I know if the tap water in my glass is safe to drink?

       Engin-akyurt ——unsplash

When I’m thirsty my first impulse is to search for something to drink. If I’m home I will open my refrigerator door in hopes of finding an enticing beverage there. Or turn on the cold water tap of my kitchen sink to fill a glass with refreshing water. If I’m out shopping I’ll buy bottled water or another favorite drink. A grocery store has such a wide variety of beverages to choose from. 

The choices are overwhelming. Can I trust that this water or bottled beverage is safe and healthy for me to drink? What safeguards exist in our society to protect me? There is so much misinformation out there that I went searching for answers. Are you concerned about what you drink also? Here is what I found . . . 

Staying hydrated is necessary for your health

Water composes 50% of your body. Proper internal temperature depends on it. Water lubricates joints and gets rid of waste thru urination, sweat, & bowel movements. Dehydration, muscle cramping, lack of coordination, heat stroke or heat exhaustion are warnings. “Your body is crying for more water!”

It is so important that you cannot last more than five days without it. You must replace fluid loss daily. During hot weather, after vigorous physical activity and bouts of illness, you need a lot more.

Do you feel energized and able to perform daily tasks? Then your individual water needs are being replaced. Besides water —- soups, sugar-free drinks, coffee, tea, sherbets, popsicles, fruits & vegetables also supply fluids.

You need to drink, but is your tap water safe?

The CDC stipulates that our tap water is safe if it comes from a public water treatment plant. The 1974 Safe Drinking Water Act ensures that Americans can trust their water supply. The EPA has the authority to track our water treatment facilities for compliance. 

Safe drinking water is clear, with no odor or funny taste.

Treated drinking water that leaves a designated facility must meet safety standards. Fluoride strengthens your teeth. Chlorine kills germs that can make you sick. Tap water has traces of minerals that bottled water does not. These are copper, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, iron, phosphorus, & zinc. This doesn’t mean our water is free of all contaminants, but the levels present should not impose a health risk.

Accidents can happen. If the water supply becomes contaminated the water plant must warn you. They will issue alternative safety practices in the interim. Watch the news for alerts about broken water lines or equipment failure. 

If you have to boil your water, do so for one minute and let it cool before drinking. 

How can contaminants enter our water?

  • Bacteria & parasites from human or animal fecal matter, like E. Coli & Giardia, can leak from fissures in sewer pipes. 
  • Chemicals from industrial waste 
  • Nitrates used in fertilizers from farm field runoff.
  • Improper disposal of lead or mercury from underground deposits 
  • Leaching from old lead pipes.
  • Chemicals present in medications aren’t removed during wastewater or potable drinking water processes. Do not dump them down the toilet! (Best to take expired meds to local pharmacy)

The biggest contaminant is breaks in water lines causing lead seepage. To avoid lead in tap water use cold water for drinking, cooking or making baby formula. Hot water can pull lead out of household pipes. Let the water run for one minute before using.

The EPA sets periodic testing schedules for specific pollutants. Ask for a copy of the recent report from your water facility.

Vulnerable people are . . .  

  • CA patients undergoing chemotherapy
  • Those with HIV or Aids
  • Transplant recipients
  • Children & infants
  • Pregnant women & fetuses
  • Immunosuppressed people

What if you use well water?

For many Americans a private well is their primary source. Wells are not regulated by the EPA. Well water, full of minerals already, tends to taste better & is healthier.

Many factors influence the safety of this water source . . .  

  • How constructed
  • Where located
  • How maintained
  • Quality of aquifer
  • Human activities in the area

Test the water yearly to be safe and attend to problems immediately.

What about the safety of bottled water?

The FDA considers bottled water to be a food item and safe to drink. Tap water has traces of minerals that bottled water does not. The bottle must identify the source. 

There are allowable limits of contaminants. There exist proper manufacturing standards for bottling & labeling. Yet there is no guarantee in place to oversee mandatory testing. The FDA can order a recall if a problem occurs.

Fiji, Dasani, Mountain Valley, Evian, & Eternal Spring bottled water are the best quality. Spring water is a healthier option because it is rich in minerals. Aquafina comes from a municipal resource and is rated as one of the worst tasting, plus it’s acidic.  Other sources like mineral & alkaline water contain essential nutrients and are healthy to drink.

Why is Fiji bottled water at the top of the list?

Fiji water comes from a natural artesian site on Viti Levu Island. Artesian aquifer water is a free-flowing underground source beneath layers of rock. There are no artificial compounds. It is on the list of worldwide green companies.

It is delivered in PET plastic bottles, known to be strong & nonreactive with food content. Fiji has a lower environmental impact. Recycled bottles can be used in packaging, carpets, & construction materials.

Fiji has an alkaline ph and natural electrolytes of magnesium & potassium. These help  regulate better nerve & muscle function. Fiji has a higher silica content. Supporting data finds that the water reduces Alzheimers risk. It builds immunity, promotes better wound healing, longer & stronger hair and better nails. Even relief from headaches & migraines with regular use.

How does contaminated water affect your health?

Cryptosporidium pathogens cause gastrointestinal disease which can be fatal.

Nitrates in your intestines change into nitrites which can prevent blood from carrying O2. An enzyme present in older children restores the ability for blood to transport O2. Nitrates can pose a threat to infants for they don’t have this enzyme.

Lead can cause physical & developmental problems in infants & children. Adults drinking lead-tainted water for years can develop kidney & high blood pressure problems.

Boiling water can kill disease-causing germs, including viruses, bacteria, & parasites —- but not lead, nitrates & pesticides. Boiling reduces water volume so concentration of those contaminants can increase. Add a pinch of salt for each quart or liter.

If you decide to use water filters for peace of mind

 There are four main kinds: 

  1. Activated carbon filter units — remove some contaminants that affect taste & odor. Some brands cut chlorination byproducts, solvents & pesticides, copper & lead.
  1. Ion exchange units — can remove calcium & magnesium, responsible for hard water. Often used with another method like carbon absorption or reverse osmosis.
  1. Reverse osmosis units using carbon remove nitrates & sodium plus pesticides, fluoride, chloride & petrochemicals.
  1. Distillation units — boil water & condense steam, creating distilled water.

No system will remove all contaminants. You must maintain them on a regular basis. They can build up in the filter & make water quality worse. Filters won’t protect you from water declared unsafe.

Two reputable scientific sources report their findings . . . 

1. Disclosure by the US Water Alliance

There are multiple water resource challenges:

1. Water scarcity is widespread in California. More than one million people in the state lack safe and reliable drinking water. 

 2. Extreme floods have damaged communities in the Midwest, Northeast & Southeast.

 3. Rising sea levels seep into water pipes with corrosive salt water.

4. Recent reports of algae bloom in Lake Erie affect thousands of people in Toledo, Ohio.

5. The lead crisis in Flint, Michigan put many people at risk.

Our water infrastructure, built over a century ago, is in urgent need of repair. Water & wastewater systems have lived beyond their intended lifespan. We lose over a million gallons of water each year due to water main breaks & leaks. Upgrading will cost over one trillion dollars in the next 30 years. Climate change only adds to the stresses on our water systems. 

The Safe Drinking Water Act stipulated federal funding to support local communities. But there has been a steady decline of monies in the past few decades. Whereas federal funding of the transportation infrastructure has remained the same. Local taxpayers finance most water projects now. Decades of neglect & inadequate budgets create more challenges.

Other communities have never had centralized & waste water systems period. African Americans are twice as likely to live without modern plumbing. Rural unincorporated towns and tribal lands lack a basic water supply & needs. They have to rely on septic systems, bottled water & water tanks. Poor maintained septic systems can overflow & contaminate existing water sources. 

Other affected populations are: 

  • Latinos in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas.
  • The Central Valley of California
  • Appalachian rural communities,
  • The Deep South and the Mississippi Delta.

People flock to a city for better jobs. This puts stress on existing water supplies. Revenue needs for maintaining current systems decline. This affects lower income communities and those of color the most. Children and the elderly suffer. Inadequate water affects mental & physical health, child development and the economy. The result is more poverty & unemployment.

Water facilities charge their customers for day-to-day operations & projected improvements. Not all Americans can afford it. Many utilities provide some help but it’s often not enough. Shutting off water service enforces payment of rates owed. They can even place liens on homeowners. Sometimes there is placement of children in foster care if water service stops. Unpaid water bills can lead to foreclosure. Few policies  exist to protect vulnerable households with small children, and the disabled, pregnant or elderly.

Water quality is affected by its source

 Access is not enough. It must also be safe for human consumption. Unsafe drinking water has heavy metals, agricultural or industrial runoff, or untreated wastewater.

Lead is one of the most prevalent contaminants, primarily in Midwest & Northeast due to aging lead pipes. Flint, Michigan is a good example. Children are affected most by lead poisoning, which causes brain & nerve damage.

Groundwater contamination is another big problem. There is Uranium present in the water of the Navajo Nation.

Stormwater runoff in urban areas sweeps contaminants from gas stations, factories, & industrial facilities. 

Agricultural runoff — nitrates, pesticides, and nutrients pollute lakes, rivers & aquifers. Toxic algal blooms contaminate water sources in the Great Lakes, Gulf Coast and Northeast. 

When wastewater enters a drinking water source, there is bacterial contamination. Recreational beaches & low-income areas often have untreated wastewater discharges causing water-borne illnesses. Sewer overflows can cause problems too. 

The Impact of Climate on our water

Unpredictable snow & rainfall patterns raise higher sea levels. Extreme storms are more frequent. Changing temperatures cause destructive wildfires, tornadoes and hurricanes, Coastal areas are receding from violent waves. Not all communities are planning for these risks. 

California is experiencing severe drought conditions. The future predicts more fluctuating extreme drought & flooding.

Underfunded utilities are not prepared to adapt. 

Flooding is a major problem. Coastal areas recede from rising sea levels. Saltwater infiltration affects drinking water supplies. Land becomes unsuitable for farming. Combined water & sewer systems overflow into parks and streets. Sludge even backs up into people’s homes. Paved parking lots around shopping centers make flooding worse. Vulnerable communities lack aid & relief with needed funds to recover from flooding. 

Drilling, mining, & fracking pose real threats to water supplies. There is coal mine runoff in West Virginia. Oil industry operations along the Gulf Coast affect low-income people & communities of color. This hinders their traditional livelihoods of fishing.

There is an underlying distrust of governmental agencies towards water issues. Take the Flint, Michigan debacle. Shrinking populations in the Great Lakes erode its fiscal base. This affects maintenance of existing facilities & systems. High poverty & unemployment rates make water unaffordable. Aging infrastructure causes lead & algal blooms. 

Wastewater treatments of lagoons & spray fields can overflow into neighboring streets & houses. Sometimes wastewater is discharged into creeks used for fishing, recreation and drinking water. Decades of mining has contaminated source water with lead, nickel & other heavy metals. Many families rely on bottled water which they can’t afford.

The Central Valley of California supplies our country with most of our vegetables. Tremendous farm runoff contaminates the water supply of millions of citizens living in the area. Most are low-income Latino & immigrant people. Many households lack drinking water & wastewater infrastructure. Water-borne disease is widespread. 

40% of the Navaho Nation lacks access to running water. They depend on water deliveries or wells contaminated by radioactive industrial waste. In Alaska, some villages lack any water infrastructure. Water contamination threatens traditional fisheries. Native lands are subject to dumping & pollution, hazardous sites & high-risk  mines & pipelines. 

2. National Academy of Sciences report  (2015 Journal )

 “The public water systems of 21 million people violate safe health quality standards.”

  • Many water violations found.
  • Improved compliance definitely needed.
  • State agencies lack a system for adequate inspections. 
  • Aging infrastructure throughout the US.
  • Impaired water sources.
  • Inadequate funding. 

Flint, Michigan water had unsafe levels of lead, E. coli & disinfection byproducts. The city was slow to respond to citizen complaints of foul smelling & discolored tap water. 

Flint is not the only city coping with disruptions to their potable water supply. An example is the Elk River chemical spill in West Virginia. Also unregulated toxins causing algal blooms in Toledo, Ohio. The Great Lakes are currently affected.

There is an urgent need to assess the drinking water quality throughout America. Violations are more prevalent in low-income & rural areas. Over 16 million cases of acute gastroenteritis surface every year in the US. 

Generally our water systems provide reliable & high quality drinking water. But 7 – 8% report at least one health based violation. Fecal coliform violations are rare. More apt to find higher heavy metal levels. The cleanest tap water is in Rhode Island, South Dakota, Minnesota, New Hampshire & California.

Hot spots for water quality are Texas, Idaho, Oklahoma & Southwest region of the United States. Privately owned water treatment plants in rural areas are less prone to violations. We need national safety standard data to identify & concentrate on known hotspots. And we must restore adequate funding to the states to help rectify weaknesses. 

Consumer reports 2015

Most water use in our homes are: outdoor watering @ 30%, toilets 19%, washing machines 15%, showers 12% & faucets 11%.

A two person household uses 60 gallons per person per day. One toilet flush uses 1.6 gallons. Biggest water waster in the home is your dishwasher (20 gallons one load.) 

What you can do

I hope this article presents new perspectives to make an intelligent choice on obtaining quality water and drinks for your family. You can also write your elected officials on the issues that still need to be addressed. And support the environmental groups working on your behalf to ensure safe water sources in the future.

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